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Fulton Valley Farms will close, lay off 123

Fulton Valley Farms is closing its chicken slaughterhouse off River Road and will lay off 123 employees, the company announced Wednesday.

The processing plant in Fulton is located in an aging building that is too far from the Central Valley ranches that raise its chickens and too costly to continue operating, said general manager John Cochrane.

The recession has dampened demand for its more expensive organic and free-range chickens, and that was the final straw, he said.

Now the company will outsource the slaughtering to more efficient facilities located closer to the Central Valley chicken ranches.

Cochrane said the toughest task of his long career was telling employees that the plant would close on July 9. He even had to lay off his own wife.

"I have a lot of great employees. Many of them have been here many, many years. Some as long as 30 years," he said.

But keeping the more than 100-year-old facility open was not economically feasible. "I just can't continue to support this wonderful old albatross," Cochrane said.

The building dates back to the 1800s, when it was a fruit and vegetable packing house. Over the years it has been used for various purposes from a winery to a U.S. Army ammunition dump.

Nick Esposti, 75, a former Sonoma County supervisor, worked there in the 1950s when it was a turkey slaughterhouse.

In 1964, it was purchased by a group of chicken processors who wanted to centralize their operations and close slaughterhouses in the increasingly residential areas of San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. The producers adopted the building's historic name, Fulton Valley Farms, for their joint venture.

During the last few years, higher fuel prices and the outdated facility have made it impractical to slaughter chickens so far from where they are raised. The recession also has made consumers more budget-conscious, and that has driven down demand for more expensive free-range and organic chickens, Cochrane said.

Two years ago, the facility was slaughtering 165,000 chickens a week and distributing them across the West Coast. Now it processes about half as many.

"In order to keep from going out of business, we have to work with other people," Cochrane said.

Fulton Valley Farms will continue selling its organic and free-range chickens to Sonoma County stores, which account for about 8 percent of its market.

"I really like the Fulton Valley chickens. They are absolutely the best," said Scott Becklund, head meat cutter for Pacific Market in Sebastopol.

Fulton Valley Farms butchers a free-range chicken dubbed Sonoma Select, which competes with the more popular Rocky chicken produced by Petaluma Poultry, Becklund said.

But the days in which a consumer can buy a Fulton Valley chicken that had been killed and butchered only hours before are numbered.

"Fulton Valley is so close we can call them at 9 a.m. and get chickens by noon," Becklund said. He notes a tremendous difference between freshly butchered chickens and those that were slaughtered several days prior and then frozen and wrapped in plastic.

"Fresh chicken is so much better, more firm," he said. "It really is a completely different experience."

Fulton Valley Farms will still provide fresh chickens to Sonoma County retailers, Cochrane said, but outsourcing their slaughter will add about 12 hours to the process.

That's still better than chickens bought frozen, which were often butchered five to six days before reaching consumers, Becklund said, which is why Pacific Market will continue to carry Fulton Valley Farm chickens.

"They really are good folks," he said. "They've treated us really well over the years."

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